Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Memetics in action: Dawkins, Thomas Jefferson and the subversion of subdivision, or vice versa

Richard Dawkins
As the word "meme" propagates further and further into the mainstream, proportionally fewer people remember that the word was coined by Richard Dawkins in his seminal 1976 book, The Selfish Gene.  As originally conceived, the word referred not just to pictures with funny captions exchanged on Facebook (not least because they and it had not been invented yet) but to replicable cultural units in general:
Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.  Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.
So, the other day, apropos of the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood cases, I was looking into the Founding Fathers' views on the separation of church and state, and I happened to come across the following quote from Thomas Jefferson:
The priests of the different religions [sic] sects dread the advance of science as witches do the approach of daylight, and scowl on the fatal harbinger announcing the subdivision of the duperies on which they live.
Quite a vivid, almost H.L. Menckenesque comment there  once we sub "religious" for the obvious typo "religions." But hang on a moment ... "subdivision"? That doesn't make sense, does it?

No, it does not. A few more Google searches yielded two discoveries: That Jefferson had written about the subversion, not the subdivision, of "the duperies on which they live," and that the mistaken word "subdivision" is a meme traceable to ... none other than Richard Dawkins himself. Specifically, to his 2006 bestseller, The God Delusion. 

To confirm, I had a look at my old-fashioned paper-and-ink hardback edition of the book. Sure enough, there it was, the epigraph to Chapter 4, on page 111: "the subdivision of the duperies." Tripped up, I'm guessing, by Microsoft Word's over-enthusiastic spell-checker, Dawkins had mis-transcribed the quote. He made a goof.

A goof that, according to Google, has been replicated on the Internet roughly 58,000 times. How bad is that? The correct quote, again according to Google, appears only 1,930 times.

In short, Dawkins inadvertently illustrated one of his own main points about memetics; namely, that memes, like genes, propagate for many reasons other than fidelity to reality or usefulness to their hosts, i.e., us. Sure, it would be preferable if the correct quote flourished. But it didn't, because the quote is long enough and its meaning robust enough that you still get the gist of it even with the goof, and since the 1820 letter where the quote originated is pretty obscure, few people are going to come across it except via Dawkins' highly popular book. Once a few dozen folks had typed or cut-and-pasted the quote without noticing the problem, that was enough for the corrupted version to take hold.

Thus spreads a maculate meme. QED.

Fortunately, as even the most fervent proselytizers for "memetics" acknowledge, human beings retain at least some conscious power over memes, however wayward they (the memes) may be.  Children reinvent the meme "educashun" over and over, yet "education" remains the way the word is spelled. And even though "the subdivision of the duperies" is winning the meme race at the moment, there's no reason it can't eventually be reined in.

Thomas Jefferson
To that end, and also just because I think it's interesting, here's the relevant excerpt from Thomas Jefferson's letter to JosĂ© Francesco CorrĂȘ a Da Serra, dated April 11, 1820, in which Jefferson describes the local clerisy's reaction to his pet project, the University of Virginia:

Dear Sir,
    Since I had the pleasure of seeing you, I have learnt that you are about to leave us. ... it would particularly grieve me were you leave us without having seen our University in it's present advanced state. this is such as to give an idea of what it will be. we are enabled now to accomplish the buildings of the whole establishment (the Library excepted) by the close of the next year; and this being secured, it is impossible that the legislature, or it's constituents, can see with indifference such a suite of buildings standing compleat, and unoccupied. there exists indeed an opposition to it by the friends of William and Mary, which is not strong. the most restive is that of the priests of the different religious sects, who dread the advance of science as witches do the approach of day-light; and scowl on it the fatal harbinger announcing the subversion of the duperies on which they live. in this the Presbyterian clergy take the lead. the tocsin is sounded in all their pulpits, and the first alarm denounced is against the particular creed of Doctr. Cooper; and as impudently denounced as if they really knew what it is. but, of this we will talk when you see us at Monticello. in the mean time cura ut valeas, et me ut amaris ama
Th: Jefferson 
Take that, you errant "subdivision," you. 1,930 ... plus 1.

Oh ... and incidentally, isn't "duperies" a word that absolutely deserves to come back into common usage?

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